Sunday, August 08, 2010

Review of Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve 2010).

Imagine reading 400 pages of this:

I forget now where I watched the lengthy tirade in which Fidel Castro ended all Utopian babble about Cuba following a different course from the sclerotic Stalinists in the Kremlin, but I think it was in the same pink-façaded Hotel Nacíonal where Graham Greene’s sadistic Captain Segura once received a cold blast of soda-water in the face and shouted “Cono!” before he could stop himself.

Or this, in which the “we” includes Edward Said:

Together we debated Professor Bernard Lewis and Leon Wieseltier at a once-celebrated conference of the Middle East Studies Association in Cambridge in 1986, tossing and goring them somewhat in a duel over academic “objectivity” in the wider discipline.

Two of the truths about Christopher Hitchens are that he is a generally gripping writer but that his work is uneven. Many of his later Minority Report columns for The Nation read as if they had been dashed off in the back seat of a town car ferrying Hitch from CNN’s Washington bureau to his flat in DuPont Circle. Some of his short books – pamphlets, really – are light weight, and one of the surprises in reading his 1990 work Blood, Class and Nostalgia was noticing how clunky it was. Hitchens’ writing became more graceful as he aged.

In light of the fact that Hitchens is gravely ill, it’s tempting to grade his memoir Hitch-22 on a curve, but that would be unworthy and would evince a blunt, vodka-scented rejoinder from the man.

I almost missed the best part of the book. I was tempted to skip the early chapters about his parents and to start my reading at the point when Hitchens begins his education. Fortunately, I scotched that lazy plan, because the chapters devoted to his unfulfilled bohemian mother and his taciturn Royal Navy father are miniature histories of post-war Britain as experienced by one couple.

How disheartening it must have been for the British in the early 1950s. The nation had stopped the spread of Axis armies, cajoled the reluctant giant across the Atlantic into the fight and then helped build the peace by founding the United Nations and the Bretton Woods monetary system.

The British deserved a good life, with spacious tract homes and color televisions and affordable new motor cars and fun. That’s really the best word. After seven years of warning and wheedling and fighting and dying, the Brits were entitled to some fun.

It didn’t happen. Rationing continued until 1954. Many consumer durables were beyond the reach of ordinary workers, and a single-family detached home with a private back yard was an unimaginable luxury. Color photographs of the time may as well be black and white, for all the drabness of the clothes and houses.

Meanwhile, the Americans quickly recovered from a post-war recession, and the Yank economy popped like a champagne cork. Germany rebounded in the “economic miracle” called the Wirtschaftswunder. The former colonies enjoyed the invigorating, hopeful days of independence. The world was moving forward with gusto, but the island that made it possible was stuck in place.

Yvonne and Eric Hitchens, meanwhile, were falling backward. “The Commander,” as Hitchens refers to his father, bravely piloted flotillas of supply ships through Nazi-patrolled Norwegian waters to support his Soviet allies. When hostilities ended, the Commander was declared redundant and entered upon a meager, itinerant existence as an accountant for hire. Yvonne accepted for decades the provincial life of a Navy wife; she yearned for a cosmopolitanism that would mostly be denied her, but she resolved to bequeath a life of wider horizons to her elder son, Christopher.

Enduring what must have been great personal pain – accepting that her dreams needed to be sacrificed for her lower-middle-class son to have any chance of advancement in the U.K. – Yvonne saved enough money to send Christopher to an English boarding school. The goal was to matriculate him at one of the ancient British universities, the institutions which certified young men as gentlemen or, at least, as the cleverest sons of the landless.

It’s at this point that Hitch-22 begins to disappoint. The chapters about Hitchens’ years in boarding school are boring. You’ve read it before: the inspirational tutors, the sadistic prefects, the furtive homosexuality and masturbation.

Hitchens more than fulfilled his mother’s aspirations. Not only did he attend one of the storied universities, he was accepted to Balliol College, Oxford – a ticket into the English Establishment.

Hitchens became a Trotskyite, participated in the student movement of 1968 and moved in the same circles as an American Rhodes Scholar named Bill Clinton (who loved to stuff his face with hash brownies, hence the excuse that he “didn’t inhale”). There were murmurings about the future president:

I didn’t much like what little I knew of Clinton, and this may have had something to do with my suspicion that he, too, was trying to have things both ways. Someone was informing on the American anti-war students and reporting their activities to Mr. Cord Meyer and the CIA desk at the London embassy in Grosvenor Square (we knew this because the fools once approached the wrong guy as a recruit, and he blew the whistle), and I am not the only person who has sometimes suspected that it was Clinton who was the snitch.
Hitchens’ political awakening is when the book becomes a snooze. The Left – then, as ever – loves to snipe about recondite topics, usually with appeals to obscure authorities. Hitchens recounts these debates in overlong detail. One example, regarding a reactionary professor he cames to rather like:

One of them, the late David Levy, later quite a celebrated conservative intellectual, was certainly the first protofascist I had ever met, and I would often almost literally pinch myself as he burbled gaily on about Charles Maurras and Action Française, about the beauties of Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain, and sang the words of the Mussolini anthem “Giovinezza.”
Another example:

I went to see Daniel Singer, the late disciple of Isaac Deutscher, who from his apartment near the Matignon was himself a single-cell headquarters for anything to do with the Polish-Jewish-Marxist diaspora.
Too much of the book reads like that, rosters of names that mean something to someone but probably not to you. I’ve tried to identify the most obscure historical event mentioned, and it’s a tie between “the Silesian question” and “the Corfu Channel dispute with Albania.”

My biggest problem with the autobiography is that Christopher Hitchens never explains how he became Christopher Hitchens. A transfiguration from Navy brat to trans-Atlantic celebrity must have consumed a ferocious amount of ambition, but Hitch completely avoids the topics of what he wanted to become and how he did it. It’s not even clear why he became a journalist, other than that he realized in youth that he didn’t have a novelist’s talents. (He’s also hazy about his personal life; I surmised from a few scattered references that Hitch has been married twice, with one son and perhaps two daughters, but none of that’s clear.)

I began to suspect half-way through that Hitchens was hiding the nakedly opportunistic aspects of his character. Somehow, he manages to befriend half the public intellectuals in London, New York and Washington. Somehow, he’s always having dinner – there are a lot of stories about dinner -- with eminent professors, editors and revolutionaries. Somehow, his circle of friends includes the most gifted writers of the time. Was all this by happenstance? Or is Hitchens a collector of garlanded company, one of England’s most successful male social climbers?

I do not for a moment believe his Horatio Alger tale of the obscure wittle journalist who just happened to be asked one day by Graydon Carter to write for Vanity Fair. You get to the big leagues because you desperately, violently, monomaniacally want to, and Hitch-22 would have benefited from more self-revelation about our hero’s motives and fewer postprandial gabfests with Eastern European samizdat publishers.

Similarly, Hitch-22 won’t be landing on the syllabi of journalism schools, because Hitch reveals almost nothing about his methods. He doesn’t explain how he talks his way into so many parlors. We don’t know how he researches or prepares for interviews. He offers no advice to aspiring writers and no opinions about journalism as a profession. The most he lets drop is that he writes about 1,000 words a day, has never missed a deadline, and, per his agreement with Vanity Fair, must write on whatever topic Carter assigns him.

Hitchens’ best work is No One Left To Lie To, an indelibly vicious portrait of the Clintons in which every nasty shot is supported by shoe-leather reporting or library research. It’s a sustained work of punditry in which Hitch lays out why he hates the Clintons and why, after reviewing the evidence, so should you. A Long Short War provides the case for the Allied military operations in Iraq, and many of the essays in Love, Poverty and War are excellent.

Those are the books to read if you want a taste of the best of Hitchens. As for Hitch-22, I would recommend reading the two chapters about his parents, the one about Salman Rushdie and maybe any two additional chapters if the titles strike your interest. Unfortunately, that’s all I can recommend of what will probably be Christopher Hitchens’ last book.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your criticisms might have been more appropriate if he had called it an autobiography. But you, not Hitchens, are the one who called it that. He called it "A Memoir" and it fits the definition perfectly.

4:30 AM  

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